Battling the sharp, post-monsoon September sun and the rising dust, Sabina Khatun*, 26, wrapped in her green gamcha (light towel), cycles back from the high-rise buildings of Gurugram’s Sector 70, to her rented tin-shade, trapping the heat within. About 300 meters away from her informal housing, Khatun gets off her weathered cycle and walks back home, down the dirt track, her forehead crinkled in worry. Trying to catch her breath, she tells her brother-in-law that all the houses where she used to work as a cook have replaced her with someone else. “They have all appointed Hindu women, lest they have to go through days without having house help,” she says.
Khatun had been absent from work for over a month, when she, her husband, and 7-year-old daughter, fled Delhi’s corporate suburb for their hometown, Malda, known only for its mangoes and mulberries. They had been here four years, with husband and wife making ₹30,000 a month, she working as a cook, he as a security guard in a housing complex near Tuplip chowk, in the same sector.
Every house and shop is a tin shed, with many still vacant. , Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP
But on August 1 this year, the sense of stability slipped away. At about 11 am, on a day following communal clashes that broke out in Mewat region’s Nuh in Haryana around a procession taken out by Hindus that turned violent, right wing men on about 25 motorbikes, allegedly rode aggressively into Sector 70A. Residents say about 800 people live here, in clusters of houses. The men allegedly bullied them into showing identity proof. Then, report residents, they set scrap yards and tire repair shops ablaze, threatening to burn down the houses of the Bengali Muslim migrants. They demanded others shut shop, abandon their houses, and leave. All this took place just about 2-3 km from the Badshapur police station, not far from the secure gated communities.
The people of the area, both Hindus and Muslims, claim there had been no history of communal violence here until the wee hours of the same morning, when imam had been murdered in a mosque, less than 10 km away. The Haryana police claims that two deaths or Gurugram residents were recorded during the communal clashes, the other death of a Bajrang Dal coordinator, who was a part of the Nuh procession.
The fear of losing their lives pushed almost all the Bengali Muslims in the area to retreat to their hometowns, primarily those bordering Bangladesh. “We were afraid that they would kill us, so we went back the night of the violence,” says Robiul Mullah, 33, who had migrated to Gurugram three years ago from Amtala, a town in the South 24 Parganas of West Bengal.
Mullah, his wife, and their two toddlers fled Gurugram on the morning of August 2, leaving behind a life they had carefully built, adding little home accessories to their home that could just about fit a single bed, a cooler, and a fridge. “I had no idea when we could come back and resume our work, or how we would sustain ourselves,” he says. Back home, he claims that the lack of Hindutva politics made West Bengal a safe haven for those like him — the “lungi wearers”. “There is no life threat if you are in a lungi or niqab there. Here, they identified us by our choice of clothes, and threatened us,” says Mullah, a security guard at a shopping mall in Gurugram.
Migrating for opportunity
The fear of hunger had pushed the Khatuns to board the Poorva Express to Delhi like many of their neighbors from the village. Khatun and her family of three had left Malda, a town in West Bengal, on the border of Bangladesh, in search of work, better pay, and more opportunities. “In our village, on good days, my husband would end up getting ₹400 for a day’s work as an agricultural labourer,” she says, of the district known for mangoes and mulberries. “However, there were days when there was no work, hence no pay. As a woman, I couldn’t have imagined getting any work there,” says Khatun.
Back home though, there were no jobs. Days after the violence had subsided and their savings had dried up, Mullah and his wife started contacting their friends and relatives in search of work in other States. Their concern was not restricted to the pay and the associated cost of living. They actively took into account the political climate of the city they were planning to move to. “We were avoiding States where the leaders were pro-Hindutva, because now we know that sooner or later they would chase us out,” says Mullah.
After much networking, he finally found a gig in a chocolate factory in Chennai. “The pay was not as much as I was making here, because I didn’t have much experience in working with large machines, but it was difficult to settle there because of the language barrier,” he adds. He had already invested time and effort picking up Hindi, and the prospect of learning another language seemed daunting. The choices were: starvation in West Bengal, the uncertainty and alienation of starting life in another State, and possible persecution again in Gurugram. Mullah chose to come back to Gurugram.
“When we heard that people were finally trying to go back to Gurgaon, at the cost of my life, and that of my family, I left my job in Chennai and came back here. Now all of us in the area have decided that we will sink and swim together,” he adds.
Now the community is alert at all hours. There is someone who is covertly keeping an eye out on the narrow lanes that connect the informal housing cluster to the main road, at all times.
“We are afraid they might come back again. Last time they threatened that they would blaze our houses while we slept. So, ever since we have come back, it’s been difficult to get a full night’s peaceful sleep. Speeding bikes, large groups of men, or any upcoming religious event scare us,” says Mansura Bibi, 36, a member of the cleaning staff in the nearest mall.
Responding to the fears of locals in Badshahpur, DCP (South Gurugram) Siddhant Jain told NEInfo, multiple steps are being taken to ensure safety of migrant workers who have returned and are returning. “We have increased patrolling in all areas, and have briefed officers to regularly contact locals regarding issues they face, both SHO and beat level officers have been asked to share their personal numbers with beat officers, in case an untoward situation arises,” DCP Jain. said.
Job loss and heartbreak
Those living in the clusters in Gurugram’s Palra village in Sector 70A, comprise a large number of Muslim migrants, with Hindu migrants being in minority. All Bengalis, they claim that there has never been violence based on religious identity between the two communities, claim residents.
“It is because of these Hindutva miscreants that this happened, that too right before the election,” asks Giasuddin, a fish seller, who sells fresh water fish to the residents of the shanties. Giasuddin has been living here for a decade now. “I first came here with my brother and started working as a construction worker. Gradually I opened this shop,” he says.
Like Khatun, Nazia Bibi, 33, too had fled to her hometown with her family. In a couple of days, she started getting calls from her employers. “They kept asking when I would be back, but not once did they ask how I or my family were dealing with the violence,” she says. She told them she’d be back with her family shortly after the immediate threat subsided. “They kept insisting that we come back and guaranteed that we’d get our jobs back, but when we returned, the jobs were gone,” she adds. She returned a week ago, and is still sitting at home, waiting to get a call from the families she used to work for.
Anupama Pringunayap, the then-president of GPL Eden Heights, a high-rise residential apartment block in Sector 70, where almost 100 migrants from Badshahpur work, says that they “tried to offer help in their capacity”, offering space within the building. “However, most of them chose to go back to their native villages, fearing safety,” she adds, recalling that one of the housekeeping staff was allegedly beaten up by goons. They offered him medical help.
While Bibi decided to come back to Gurgaon, her brother’s family continues to struggle with the dilemma. “He was ruthlessly beaten up and told that if we didn’t vacate right away, they would tear our clothes to see if we were Hindus or Muslims and would kill us,” she says.
Meanwhile, a wave of newer migrants, Bengali Hindus, have entered the space, where the older migrant population, mostly Bengali Muslims, vacated. “We have seen videos on WhatsApp and Facebook where right-wing outfits were beating up people and threatening them, but we came anyway because we are Hindus. What do we have to fear,” asks Raju Mandal, a resident of Matia, a village in the North 24 Parganas.
While most men have got back their jobs, the women who worked as house-helps, cooks, and cleaning staff in Gurugram’s high-rise societies continue to look for work. Most have now donated sankha-pola (traditional bangles worn by married Bengali Hindu women), to pass off as being from the majority community.
“When most of the Muslims fled, the cluster’s deserted houses reminded me of the pandemic,” says Rafiq, whose family was one of the few that stayed back even after the violence broke out in Gurugram and Nuh. Being a gardener at a residential society and having to feed a family of 10 members, traveling to a from West Bengal was not possible, given his salary of ₹11,000 a month. A private cab to the station and a train to their hometown, would have cost about ₹4,000. “When the hate calls echoed, I told my family that we would run away,” he says. A quick calculation later, they realized they couldn’t.